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March 7th, 2011
06:00 AM ET

Meet America's top exorcist, the inspiration for 'The Rite'

Editor's Note: This story comes from a new CNN Special, "Stories Reporter," with Tom Foreman which features an in-depth look at the news of the day.

By Tom Foreman, CNN

The sun was shining on the Santa Cruz Mountains. The freeway from the San Francisco airport to San Jose was still buzzing in my ears when I stepped into the parking lot of an unassuming church and the most famous exorcist in America walked up.

“Hello, I’m Father Gary Thomas.”  At 57 years old, he has an easy smile, an abiding love for the Giants and strong convictions about the nature of evil.

"You believe there is a devil?"  I ask him as we settle in at a small, beautiful chapel near the church.

“Yes.”

“You believe that this devil acts upon people?”

“Correct.”

He says it with the certainty that I reserve for answers to questions like, “Did you bring your lunch?” but that’s no surprise.  He has faced skeptics many times and never more than now, because his life and training as an exorcist in Rome are the inspiration behind the Hollywood film "The Rite."

Father Gary Thomas at the premier of 'The Rite'

Indeed, at the premiere, as the cameras swirled around the star, Anthony Hopkins, Thomas walked the red carpet alongside him.  This movie, like salvation, is something the priest believes in.

“First of all,” he says, “it was very emotional for me.  I found some of those scenes very riveting.  I found some of them very profound.  They’re very accurate.  That’s what I’ve seen in real life.”

That’s saying something.  "The Rite" is chock-full of heaving, cursing, ranting characters, who, according to the screenplay, are possessed by Satan, people who one moment seem fine and the next are raging against all that is holy.

And yet, Thomas says people who fear that very fate come to him constantly.  “Well, often times they’ll begin the conversation with ‘Father, I need an exorcism.’  And my answer back to them is, ‘I don’t do them on demand.’”

But he does think a lot more of them need to be done.  It is all part of a push by the Vatican to make more exorcists available to the faithful.  Some in the Catholic Church believe the world is facing a rising tide of demonic activity, particularly in America, where millions are moving away from traditional faiths and looking for alternatives.

"A lot of folks dabble in the occult, or they will be involved in practices that … classical Christianity at least would consider to be idolatrous.  People can get themselves involved in Wicca, or people will go see some sort of fortune-teller, or people will go to a séance, or they can go and they can learn how to channel spirits. …"

A vision of politician Christine O’Donnell fills my head and I interrupt.  “But a lot of people would tell you up front, ‘I’m just playing around.’”

“Right.  Absolutely.  And it’s not,” he says, noting that those who feel adrift from the church and from others of faith are more likely to be drawn in.  “Demons are always looking for human beings who have broken relationships.”

Simply put, Thomas believes just as surely as a person can summon God through prayer, through other rituals, the devil can be called, too.

Father Thomas, left, and Tom Foreman

Thomas says an exorcism usually takes from 45 minutes to two hours and involves reciting prayers, reading scriptures and using sacramental objects such as crucifixes and holy water.  Of course, that’s like saying surgery involves a knife and some sponges.

It is vastly more complicated.  Before the rite is even considered, there must be psychological testing by professionals, extended consultations and questions about drug and alcohol addiction.

Thomas says fully 80% of the people he meets claiming demonic possession have actually suffered some kind of abuse.  An exorcism, he says, is the last step in a long process.

“I have a particular situation now,” he says, “where I think this particular person is suffering from a very unique psychological disorder, but she’s also been exposed to satanic cults, and I want to make sure that what we’re dealing with … is satanic or if it is psychological.”

Even when an exorcism is prescribed, it often must be repeated.  Judging from Thomas' comments, it takes something of a trained eye to decide whether it is even working.

Father Thomas and Anthony Hopkins at the premier of 'The Rite.'

The movie, to be frank, complicates this whole discussion.  Not "The Rite."  Thomas says he likes that one, and found Anthony Hopkins a “delightful” man.

But rather the movie from 1973.  "The Exorcist" captured America's imagination about demons taking over a person’s body and profoundly shaped the public's perceptions about the process of throwing those devils out.  It was lurid, violent and unforgettable.

It was also based on a real exorcism in Washington, which was far less dramatic than the film.  Thomas will tell you emphatically there are no spinning heads, spewing pea soup or levitating bodies.

But he has seen manifestations of possession.  "Sometimes the person's head will begin to move in very rigid ways.  Sometimes their eyes will roll.  Sometimes there will be epileptic-like seizures," Thomas said.  "Occasionally people will take on kind of a body language of a serpentine look, and they'll begin to stick their tongue out and use their tongue in ways that would look snake-like, and they'll coil up in a snake-like position."

“And these are things that you have seen in real life?” I ask.

"I have seen that," he said with a wry smile.

I’ve seen it, too.  A few years ago I went to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to report on a Protestant exorcist who was holding a session in a hotel meeting room.  Several dozen people filed in while, no kidding, "The Devil Inside" by INXS played on a stereo system.

Suffice to say, there were plenty of eye-rolling, seizure-like eruptions in the crowd as people cried out and the exorcist confronted them, pressing his Bible against their heads, and demanding that their demons reveal their names.

We talked to some of the participants before and after, talked to the exorcist, too. For all their heartfelt expressions of belief, I can’t help but ask Thomas the same thing I asked that night: Couldn’t all these folks just be acting?

"I don't think they're acting out in a conscious sense,” he says, “because many times … they don't remember the experience itself.”

What’s more, he says, occasionally the person will do something that defies explanation.  "Sometimes the person will begin to speak in a language in which they have no competency in.”

Meaning, for example, someone who knows no German might start speaking precisely and accurately in that language.  Thomas says he has witnessed that, too.

I stopped by the Pew Center in Washington, where some of the best research on religion is done, to ask about all this.  Allison Pond is a charming young researcher who kindly sat me down before delivering some startling news: A Pew survey found more than one in 10 Americans have witnessed an exorcism, and when you narrow it down to Pentecostals it’s about one in three.

“Forty percent of Americans said they completely believe angels and demons are active in the world,” she told me, “with 28% telling us they mostly believe this."

That is the kind of information that needs more than a priestly explanation, so I roamed over to Georgetown University to talk to Ori Soltes, a theologian.  The problem, he says, is that we can’t know for sure what people mean when they say they’ve seen an exorcism.  Was it a formal ceremony?  A personal revelation?  A changed way of life?

Still, he has no doubt that claims of demonic meddling are high, because, after all, the year 2000 rolled around less than a dozen years ago, and at every millennium fears of the devil’s influence rise.

"My sense is that we are still in the backwash from the millennium,” he says, “but then you know ... events have helped to proliferate that:  9/11,  the war in Iraq.  And now as we approach 2012, suddenly everyone is very interested in the Mayan calendar and how we interpret the idea that the apocalypse is coming in December of 2012 at the time of equinox ... all that sort of stuff.”

So maybe it’s no wonder that Thomas is getting calls for exorcisms from not only Catholics, but also from followers of other faiths.

"How often?" I ask.

"I would say probably one out of 10."

Thomas says there are about 50 Catholic exorcists in the United States, and that’s not nearly enough.  He’d like to see one exorcist in every parish.  But until that day, he does not mind explaining over and over what exorcisms are really all about.

“It's a healing ministry.  It's not hocus pocus.  It's not smoke and mirrors.  It's not magic. But I think if we don't respond to people who come in their very troubling moments, I think it diminishes us as a church."

Despite all that Hollywood has done to mythologize exorcisms, he still believes in the power of this rite, a power born not of fear, but of faith.

CNN's Eric Marrapodi and Katie Ross contributed to this report.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Belief • Catholic Church • Christianity • Devil • Mass • Movies • Vatican

soundoff (1,247 Responses)
  1. WiccanJason

    Hrmm. This gentleman refers to Wicca as a way to become possessed.

    Let's clarify, for a moment. First, Wicca does not believe in a supremely evil being. That would be a Christian concept- not even Judaeism has a Hell.

    Second, Wicca's primary concept on how one lives ones' life is The Rule of Three- any actions you take shall be returned to you threefold. In other words, good done by you to others is returned to you threefold- but so is evil. Oddly, given this belief, very few people who actively wish ill upon others pursue Wicca.

    Third, let's not forget that this belief comes from a man whose church raided the Santa Sophia (A Christian church, though Eastern Orthodox), stole the gold crufixes, stripped the gold and jewels off the bibles, and smashed babies' heads against walls during the (pope-sponsored and blessed) Fourth Crusade.

    What was that about 'Glass houses' and 'Thrown stones'? Remember, noone has ever gone on a murderous rampage through a major city to further the cause of Wicca.

    February 13, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
    • 777jonah888

      I love it when people bring up the Crusades to belittle the Church. It shows how futile your argument is to bring up something that is centuries old and hold it to present day morals. Wicca is occult just like Satanism, New Age garbage and the rest. You use the same occult symbols as Satanism but you claim to be different...............I get it.

      March 13, 2012 at 5:25 pm |
    • HawaiiGuest

      You need to first clarify what type of satanism you are talking about. Another thing is that the Pentacle used in Wiccan practice is not the same as the Pentagram used in SOME stanic worship.

      March 13, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
    • Jesusland

      What the wicca believe is entirely irrelevant. Your beliefs/disbeliefs in demons won't protect you from them.

      May 13, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
  2. Google

    [...]just beneath, are several entirely not associated web pages to ours, having said that, they are certainly worth going over[...]

    February 8, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
  3. Mary

    Well, the article didn't answer the question: Did Father actually get possessed by a demon as the movie shows? I thought Catholic exorcists were never possessed. This part of the movie should be explained. Also, the movie shows the young man exorcising the demon, though the young man was not at that time a priest. This, also, should be explained. Not anyone can put on a stole and perform an exorcism.

    February 1, 2012 at 11:20 pm |
    • ankenyman

      No, the real priest was never possessed. It was just in the movie, not real life.

      April 7, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
  4. IGF 1 R3

    There are some interesting points in time in this article but I don't know if I see all of them center to heart. There is some validity but I will take hold opinion until I look into it further. Good article , thanks and we want more! Added religion.blogs.cnn.com to FeedBurner as well

    December 1, 2011 at 6:00 pm |
  5. pastor t.l. mccormick

    I, personally have witnessed many exorcisms. The most powerful weapons that the devil has are unbelief or denial that he exist and is able to influence people of a civilized and educated society such as America.

    November 2, 2011 at 9:47 pm |
  6. tryecrot

    Yes there should realize the opportunity to RSS commentary, quite simply, CMS is another on the blog.

    August 27, 2011 at 1:40 am |
  7. grimking12

    this is a site for those exorcists out there who are reading this. The people in this site are demon hunters. We use different methods then exorcists but we are curious about the way exorcists take care of demons. I believe exorcists and us hunters share the same enemy and we can learn a lot from each other. http://orderoflightdemonhunters.yuku.com/

    June 28, 2011 at 8:43 pm |
    • Trajan

      Seriously demon hunters, okay Buffy.
      The reason why people are mixed about angels and demons is because of groups like this, one extreme demon huters another extreme people who can talk to angels.
      This is how people get possesed by dabbling in these occult pratices.

      October 27, 2011 at 11:14 am |
  8. Jesús Malverde

    Feed your delusion. Go to church.

    March 30, 2011 at 6:44 pm |
  9. Grim

    Wow, who ever believes this crap deserves to be taken advantage of...

    March 29, 2011 at 12:18 pm |
  10. Wayne Sutton

    This was a great movie – and exorcism is real! For more information just check out the websites that dealt with real cases of exorcism and go to http://www.thesecondadam.com for other spiritual related information.

    March 22, 2011 at 7:16 am |
  11. BigFatCryBaby

    Agree totally with Ross' comment about the need for education on this subject beyond the first grade.

    Suggest Elaine Pagel's book, (the Harvard scholar), about Adam and Eve and the snake in the Garden of Eden, or the Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber's book, "Good and Evil". Guarantee that you will never look at evil in the same manner, after reading this book, and funny thing, Paul Tillich's book, "The Courage to Be" suggests that the concept of evil could be approached in the same manner, but both would agree that the personification of evil is a not a biblical concept. Time to give up the Santy Claus level and understand the complicated picture of the real world.

    March 15, 2011 at 11:56 am |
  12. Mike Crisolago

    I agree with this quote from standingwave's post: "you would be closer to reality if you would grant that most atheists(that I know of anyway)have given a lot of time,effort and thought to arrive at their position on religion."

    I feel the same applies to most people of faith, like myself. Though I do have many atheist friends, as well as friends who are gay or of other faiths and I wouldn't ever think any different of them than I would any Catholics I know. I would never judge someone based on the aforementioned criteria.

    WE'RE ALL HUMANS FIRST. Everyone else is second. Right now millions of lives are in danger of being lost due to the earthquake and tsunami in the Pacific. When you're running for shelter or pulling someone from the rubble none of this bickering over who believes what and why matters. That's because we're humans and basic love and humanity is what should matter, regardless of faith.

    Stop arguing over who's right or wrong. Faith is a personal choice and there's no reason to bash someone for being religious or non-religious. Religious or not, there's no better way to live than happily and by spreading positivity in the world. And right now there are a lot of people around the globe who could really use it. Their problems make the petty exchanges here seem just that: petty.

    March 11, 2011 at 6:01 pm |
    • Mike Crisolago

      *Everything* else is second.

      March 11, 2011 at 6:02 pm |
    • BullInTheHeather1

      The reason it can seem petty to argue about religion is that you and I(I'm making some general assumptions here based on what you've said) live in a pretty liberal, essentially secular society. It's easy to forget that our experience of religion is heavily skewed towards the relatively tolerant western model of secularism. This is not representative of religion generally – where it is in the ascendancy it is very rarely benign and even more rarely tolerant. If all religious believers were like you there'd be no problem – the only grounds upon which I would then oppose religion would be evidential ones. I like your message especially your emphasis on our shared humanity above all, but like I said it's not people like you that hijack planes and fly them into buildings, execute gay people, assassinate blasphemers or shoot doctors who carry out abortion.

      March 12, 2011 at 7:20 am |
    • Mike Crisolago

      BullInTheHeather1,

      I agree with you and appreciate your understanding. As for those who "hijack planes and fly them into buildings, execute gay people, assassinate blasphemers or shoot doctors who carry out abortion," they give people of faith a terrible name. They are extremists in each case, regardless of what religion they subscribe to and they are wrong. I’ll also mention that some of those actions occur because of cultural beliefs as opposed to religion – though it obviously doesn’t make it any better. When people find out I'm religious many assume I am anti-gay, anti-abortion, etc. when I'm the opposite.

      To me, the argument is as absurd as getting angry at a specific ethnicity and saying they’re all criminals. The colour of your skin doesn’t make you a criminal. The socio-economic/environmental/personal issues that impact many large populations of ethnicities often result in them living in poverty and therefore make them more likely to turn to crime. It can happen to people of any colour. So we wouldn’t blame the colour of someone’s skin for making them a criminal. We’d explore the myriad of reasons that may have pushed them to crime.

      In the same way people have to realize that it isn't religion that is the problem. The real problem is the underlying social /political/economic issues that create the extremists and allow them to thrive. So for others to sit on here and say that religious people are idiots is insulting to people like me, just as I would never say that atheists are going to hell.

      Everyone has a right to believe what they want as long as they aren't hurting anyone. If you like religion, fine. If not, fine. I don’t care. However, I feel that a debate on why religion is good or bad is as much a waste of time as a debate about how listening to rap makes kids criminals.

      There are always underlying social/personal/political reasons that make someone go extreme. That’s what the energy in this thread could go toward discussing. We can help people climb out of poverty to improve their lives and lower the crime rate. What needs to change to stop the spread of religious extremism? And a hint to others out there: it has nothing to do with abolishing religion. War and violence existed long before religion, and it would exist long after.

      March 15, 2011 at 1:29 am |
  13. Timothy P. Ross

    Dear Amber @ Stunned...

    I also don't care what anyone says. I believe the moon is made of green cheese, and I don't care what anyone says. You can't prove it isn't. The earth is also flat, and I KNOW I will fall off if I walk too far towards the edge.

    Interesting that this priest, and many of his compatriots have never read the historical material abailable in the History of Religion courses at many schools in this country. Instead of seriously looking into where the concepts of evil started, and from whence they originated, as well as the conceps of goos and evil angels, and the enlightened view that would offer, they prefer to grasp tightly onto the third grade concepts of evil and angels and devils, instead of allowing in an intelligent view of the problems and concepts of evil. The only interesting part of all this is the question of why their psychological makeup REQUIRES them to have the world all tied up with a bow in a neat square box, all extremely and only simplistic ideas allowed.

    March 11, 2011 at 5:19 pm |
  14. BullInTheHeather1

    Drew – What I was trying to put across in my post is that only objective claims about the natural world are amenable to arbitration. We can compare them with what the natural world actually says and on that basis make objective statements about their veracity. This is because the natural world acts as the arbiter and will support one claim over another. The problem is not that claims about a supernatural world 'can't be attacked or defended using the scientific method'; the problem is that claims about a supernatural world can't be attacked or defended at all. There is no arbiter. It's as pointless as arguing whether my sense of the colour green is the same as yours. Now in the absence of ANY non-subjective evidence for a supernatural world, evidence which one could test against an objective parameter, people like me simply won't see any reason to believe most of the absurdities that masquerade as supernatural arguments. Let me make this very clear, as I'm no fan of long, pointless arguments with theists or deists – the burden of proof rests squarely on your shoulders. It is not up to anyone else to disprove a supernatural world, it is up to you to prove it

    March 11, 2011 at 7:19 am |
    • Drew

      @ BullInTheHeather1

      What you are saying is perfectly reasonable, and I think we agree that the supernatural can't effectively be argued for or against. My point about art was really just to give an albeit subjective example of how there may be some truth outside of or beyond physical reality. More broadly, I guess I might say that our understanding of the physical world can't really account for the complexity of our subjective experiences, and that it may be fruitful for people to at least consider the supernatural.

      March 13, 2011 at 12:22 am |
  15. mike

    The real question that the interviewer should have asked is. "Do you as a exorcist see the devil or evil in any way at the Oscars tonight?" Now that would have been interesting?"

    March 10, 2011 at 2:48 pm |
  16. BullInTheHeather1

    With regards to the claim that truth is subjective: what is true to you is subjective, what is true to me is subjective. What is true in the outside world however is NOT subjective, and the reason we can make positive, objective claims about the world around us is that these claims(unlike artistic claims, or theological claims, or even philosophical claims) have an arbiter. This arbiter is the natural world itself and it is the reason we can talk about science as being objective rather than subjective. Without the ability to measure your truth-claims against something non-subjective you're building an argument on quicksand. There are many subjective reasons to believe in exorcism. Each believer will see their subjective reasons for believing as powerfully convincing. I think the guy in the article probably believes in exorcism. The problem is that, just like it does with claims about ghosts, creationism, telekinesis, prayer, etc, the natural world disagrees, and in the end it's only its opinion that's worth anything.

    March 10, 2011 at 12:28 pm |
    • Drew

      @ BullInTheHeather1

      We may be able to make positive, object claims about the material world around us, but what we are discussing here is the existence of a reality outside of the material world. Such a claim can't be attacked or defended with the scientific method or empiricism, which are rooted in the material world.

      March 10, 2011 at 3:51 pm |
    • Drew

      *objective

      March 10, 2011 at 4:08 pm |
    • BigFatCryBaby

      The problem with this arguement is that there is not now, nor ever will be, an "outside" objective viewer to report their findings of "objective realityt". There is no reality apart from the observations of inside viewers, and now with the discoveries of quantum mechanics, there are the added problems that show the action of observing alters the actual nature of reality itself

      March 18, 2011 at 11:59 am |
  17. Jeff

    You can tell he is lying because he breaks eye contacted (i.e. looks down and blinks his eyes while answering).

    March 10, 2011 at 11:18 am |
    • Karina

      Blinking of the eyes and looking down can also indicate nervousness, stress and all other common emotions and physical states that every person experiences. There is no one "true" indicator of deceptiveness. You can't say that this person is lying just because he is blinking and looking down. It's like saying if the person is not moving, then he or she is dead.

      April 25, 2011 at 1:56 pm |
  18. Moni

    @ Drew
    You talk about "pigment on a canvas", "sound waves" etc. which by names are scientific terms(pigment, sound waves). It can be seen or felt by any natural and sane human being. And hence it has the capability to arouse emotions. whereas how many in the world have seen or witnessed the "supernatural"(God/Satan) in real life?? And those who have can they prove it to the rest who havn't.
    Your comarison of Supernatural with Art is baseless...

    March 10, 2011 at 3:08 am |
    • Drew

      @ Moni

      My point is that its aesthetic appreciation suggests some order beyond the immediate material world, otherwise music and paintings would be no different to us then random arrangements of matter. Also, no one can witness the supernatural in "real life," because what you are describing as real life is just the material world. You can't use empirical arguments to argue for or against the existence of the supernatural, because empiricism is rooted in materialism.

      March 10, 2011 at 3:48 pm |
  19. Cisco

    Why are atheists even reading this story? I know curiousity for some–but there are a lot of people here leaving comments-about something they don't even believe in. I respect your beliefs–just seems strange to me.

    March 9, 2011 at 3:47 pm |
    • Wraithian

      I cannot answer as an athiest... Though, as a pagan, I can. I read the Belief blogs in general, just to find common ground. Exorcisms have occurred throughout human history by many faiths.

      March 11, 2011 at 2:44 pm |
  20. VitruviannMan

    I want the last 10 minutes of my life back.

    March 9, 2011 at 3:24 pm |
    • Chris Johnson

      Me, too.

      March 10, 2011 at 7:02 am |
    • MoPedFred

      The everyday demons among us are nothing like we see depicted in the movies. He comes to us wearing a smile in a nice suit of clothing creating evil, hatred, and disharmony among us in our everyday lives. Remember, there are only two great forces, that of good and that of evil. What's your choice?

      March 16, 2011 at 8:46 pm |
    • Eliavaa

      And now I also want the next 30 seconds of my life back.

      April 2, 2011 at 11:15 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.